Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: Ghost Racers

Writer Felipe Smith's All-New Ghost Rider, drawn first by Tradd Moore and then by Damion Scott (and a little by Smith himself), didn't last long, publishing just enough issues to fill just two slim trade collections. But Smith got to provide his co-creation Robbie Reyes, the young high school student/mechanic/street racer with the spirit of a serial killer fused to his own soul, with a spectacularly strange coda in this Secret Wars tie-in.

Smith is here paired with Juan Gedeon, and Ghost Rider editor Mark Paniccia is still onboard overseeing things and, apparently, suggesting some of the coolest elements. The premise of this four-issue miniseries includes a sort of Ghost Rider Corps, where all your favorite Ghost Riders from all eras are involved: Old West original Carter Slade, Johnny Blaze, Danny Ketch, Fear Itself's Alejandra and, of course, Reyes. There are also plenty of particularly obscure and/or new Ghost Riders, like a gorilla who rides around on a little train engine and a T-Rex that rides a tiny little fighter jet (in homage to Bill Watterson, I'm sure).
What, did you think I was joking...?

I was not joking.
In the new (and highly temporary) status quo of Secret Wars' Battleworld, the various Riders are all called "igniters," and are capable of setting their heads on fire and piloting flaming vehicles of various sorts. They are controlled by the angel Zadkiel, who can essentially turn them on and off at will.

In one of the most popular events of Arcade's Killisieum, these "Spirits of Ignition" compete as Ghost Racers. Each driving or piloting some sort of insane-looking, souped-up vehicle bristling with weaponry, they race around a trap-laden track while in a no holds barred competition that is a sort of NASCAR meets Death Race, or Mad Max meets Speed Racer maybe. But a little more dramatic than any of the previously mentioned, as all the competitors are immortal burning skeletons. The winner gets a trophy, the losers all get horribly tortured.

This hasn't been much of a concern for Reyes, who has been winning ever since he was first arrested and forced to race, but it gradually becomes one, particularly when he escapes and tries to rescue his little brother, who Arcade is holding hostage and forcing to compete in order to bring Reyes back.

As good as Smith's story is–and it's plenty good, capturing the over-the-top insanity of Jason Aaron's run on Ghost Rider and focusing on the same relationship between the Reyes brothers that drove his own All-New–it's Gedeon's accomplished but flat-out crazy artwork that makes this book such a blast to read.

Actually, I'd go a step farther and say that it isn't even the art–as cool as that is–but the designs. Sure, all of your favorite Ghost Riders are here, but none of them look like you remember.

The most dramatic redesign is that of the original, a Golden Age Western character who wore all-white and later had his name retconned into The Phantom Rider, so as not to be confused with the motorcylist Ghost Rider that emerged in the 1970s. Here he is a centaur in cowboy garb, wearing a blindfold and swaddled in mummy-like wrappings, from hoof to hat. His hands carry six-guns, and there are huge gatling mounted on his horse haunches.
This version of Slade was "100% Mark's idea," Gedeon wrote in the generous sketchbook section at the end of the trade, saying the character was originally described to him as "A cowboy-centaur with gatling guns on the sides." Gedeon obviously tinkered with the character quite a bit to give him an extremely distinctive look that honored the character's past without looking all that much like it. He's one of the most interesting characters among the Racers, as he gets by on actual horse power (but can keep pace with all the flaming vehicles), and is not on fire, but emanates his own dust clouds instead. (I'm assuming Slade didn't survive the rejiggerings of the Secret Wars and make it into the All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe that emerged, which doesn't have a Ghost Rider monthly, but I kinda hope he did; he'd certainly fit in over in 1872 spin-off Red Wolf, for example).

Ketch and Blaze also get pretty thoroughly redesigned; in the case of Ketch, Gedeon simply tried to make him look slightly more realistic, while keeping a heavy metal/biker aesthetic, while his Blaze now looks like an evil, undead Evil Knievel, appropriate for the character.
All the vehicles, like the Riders/Racers, have been revamped too, so that Ketch and Blaze don't drive motorcycles with mean skull-faces, but the latter does have a fucking cannon in the front of his and smaller ones in the back, and the latter has a chainsaw mounted on the front of his bike and a grenade launcher in the back.

As this was another Secret Wars tie-in that wasn't actually long enough to fill a whole trade collection by itself, Marvel included a couple of extras. In addition to the Gedeon's sketches and discussion of 'em, there's the six-page "Fan of a Fan" story from Secret Love and a classic Ghost Rider story involving racing.

The former was a Robbie Reyes/Ms. Marvel team-up set in the Killiseum (where Kamala, her father and Bruno sell concessions), and which was (completely randomly) collected along with the entirety of the Secret Love one-shot in the Runaways trade. The latter, by Jim Starlin, Steve Leialoha "and friends" is...well, it's very much a product of its time, and despite being a comic about a flaming skeleton on a fiery motorcycle, it seemed downright pedestrian compared to all the insanity of the main event.

But then, how do you top undead cowboy centaur Carter Slade? I'm pretty sure that character's existence and design alone justified Marvel doing Secret Wars in the first place.

No comments: